So apparently no one likes to read about the stuff I actually loved about San Antonio. To think that bella complained about my treatment of her city - it's the only way to get a reaction from the readers! Controversy sells.
I'm sure Spurs fans will enjoy this one more. Day 5 was the the day when I got my media pass, so I'll do my best to show you what the backstage of a big game is like, from the eyes of a complete newbie. So join me after the jump, ladies and gentlemen, and try not to think about Denver's shooting percentage for a while.
I had planned to move around San Antonio using its public transport, but thankfully I was staying close enough to the downtown area that walking had been an option. There are some buses going around the city, and even fake trolleys with internal combustion engines and no rails. However, I wasn't able to find a good map of their routes, not even in the tourist centre I visited, so I had depended on other people's generosity and my trusty old legs. Thankfully, everyone I'd met so far had had one or more cars - which makes me wonder about how exactly the American car industry has reached its current state.
In any case, my host had kindly provided an option from day 1, but I had been too lazy to take him up on it: his bike. There was a good reason for it, though - I hadn't ridden a bike in 10 years, maybe more. However, when bella invited me to have lunch with her, I suddenly remembered what they say about people never forgetting how to ride a bike, grabbed it, manned the hell up and started pedaling towards the meeting point we'd agreed on.
Looking back, I think I did fairly well with my bike, and I did get there in less than 10 minutes. There might have been a moment where I hit a curb and came to an abrupt stop, and some Japanese tourists might've turned to look at me like I was some sort of bicycle-challenged idiot, but there were no witnesses so history won't register that. The short trip did remind me of two very important facts about bikes: the seats were invented by a sadist and will neuter you if you're not careful; and the chains can catch onto loose jeans and rip them open. In short, buy cars.
I met bellasa and knowing how much Mexican food I had had lately she quickly led me to Paesanos, an Italian restaurant in the Riverwalk. It actually wasn't the first time I had eaten Italian food in San Antonio - Ben and I had gone to a place called La Focaccia the day before, near the King Williams district and against bellasa's (stern) advice. The bacon salsa in my spaghetti carbonara had put me off, another example of the weird obsession of North Americans with bacon, so I honestly didn't know what to expect. I should've trusted bellasa's judgment: the lasagna I ordered was very recognizably lasagna, and my taste buds were suddenly homesick.
Let me make a quick aside: in the quiet restaurant our conversation went much smoother, so as I said before I'm definitely raising her ATUWTFTFISN ranking to an 8/10, maybe 9/10. This is particularly important because she has already read my previous post, and she wasn't happy with her paltry 6/10. In fact, she threatened me were I not to change her ranking, and I'm nothing if not easily frightened by forceful ladies.
After lunch I rode back to my place, but first I went by the Majestic theatre (which I'd visit again a few days later), the San Fernando Cathedral, where the ashes of some of the Alamo fighters supposedly rest, and the Square Market, which I'd only visited during the night when I had dinner at MiTierra. As interesting as those were, the photo I'll post shows something much smaller, but curious: the pavements of Houston street, one of the main streets in San Antonio, are built with bricks with names on it. Hundreds of bricks, hundreds of names - maybe thousands.
I was flabbergasted at the time, but bellasa explained it yesterday. Apparently all those people were donors that contributed to the construction and revitalization of the downtown area, and were thus immortalized as recognition for their help.
Yep, there's nothing quite like giving money so that people can walk on you forever.
Media Pass Time
"Yeah, yeah, yeah. You went to San Antonio, visited some cool places, ate out in different restaurants - we get it already! Weren't you supposed to be doing Spurs-related things? Wasn't that the whole point of this trip?" See, that's you in my thoughts - so at last, let me tell you what will forever be remembered in my mind as Media Pass Day was like.
Wayne, ruthless leader he may be, had been kind enough to work his magic and get press credential for me for the next three Spurs home games. I was even offered credentials for the away games during the road trip, but I had declined - I wanted to go to those games as a fan, to learn what it was like to cheer in enemy territory.
Wednesday was the day, and Wayne picked me up early that afternoon. For sportswriters, the games start one hour and a half earlier and finish only when they hand in their articles. As fun as making a living out of watching basketball sounds like, it's still hard work - but I'd still take it over 90% of the jobs out there, don't get me wrong. Oh, and before we continue, there's something you have to know: Wayne knows the trade. He's familiar with the people, he looks comfortable talking to the pros, he has a little running joke with the lady at the parking lot, he has been there, done that, gotten the T-shirt. He was completely comfortable with the whole situation, in stark contrast with me, who was in a permanent state of fluster and wonder. It was eye-opening, and I've personally bugged Wayne a few times about writing about his process from rookie blogger and semi-veteran. I expect all of you to join in my request.
We parked in the media lot and walked to the unassuming media entrance. Once inside we were greeted by three people, a young guy who didn't say much, a kind old lady who gave my backpack a cursory glance and then put a color tag on it, and an old man who we'd get to know better two days later. It was the latter that gave me a little plastic card that turned out to be my media pass. Wayne had a lanyard for himself, but I was told to just hang mine from one of my jean's belt-loops. It came to rest very near my crotch, and almost immediately I took the picture than I'd later post in PTR. It was a nice moment, and as I said at that time, a distinct feeling of happiness emanated from my general crotch area.
A big elevator dropped us to the court's level, and we started walking through barren white halls with black doors with different labels: tape room, kitchen, and many others. One of them said "media workroom", and without further ado we ventured inside. The room was L-shaped, with a long table that ran along the room's entire perimeter and several chairs. Near the center of the room, next to the only column, was another, smaller table with several stacks of paper on top of it. There was no one there yet, so Wayne and I dropped our things in a random chair and approached the papers. They had information about the game, the Spurs and its opponent, the Hawks: the referees for the game, season stats for the Spurs, ditto for the Hawks, head-to-head stats, stats for their next opponents, the roster for that night's game, etc. etc. I grabbed one of each, just because I could, and retreated to my seat to log in to PTR and post my "crotch photo".
And that's when the day made a turn for the fantastic. A giant of a man entered the room, and my amazed eyes identified him as none other than Dominique Wilkins, the Human Highlight Film, dunker extraordinaire and historic Hawks player. "That's Dominique Wilkins", I told Wayne, and he nodded knowingly. Or maybe he said that, and I nodded dumbly. Details are fuzzy. He nodded at us, and I tried to follow Queness' advice, who I'd been chatting with at the time: "DON'T STARE", she said. So I didn't. Bill Land showed up then, said hi, and started talking with 'Nique and the other Hawks' announcer whose name I don't care enough to look up. That was my first surprise of the night - announcers of opposing teams actually get together before a game and share their thoughts on the status of their respective teams. And they are nice about it, too, laughing amiably at each others jokes. Huh.
I was subtly trying to take a photo of 'Nique (flash off, camera set on the table) when he came to the table, grabbed some papers, and made some sort of joke to Wayne. He replied, and I just nodded, saying something like "ugh brr hmm bzzt ehm". I must've imagined the lost look 'Nique directed at me. Eventually he left, before I could take that picture. Meh.
More people would show up: Jeff McDonald, Buck Harvey and Mike Monroe, from MySA, who all exchanged some short words with Wayne but mostly ignored me; Tim Price, who writes for NBA.com and is the nicest guy I met in that room (Tim is one of those people who always seems to be smiling, and that attitude is awfully underrated these days); Joe and Kris, who both work with Tom for the Spurs were helpful and very kind. There were others, TV people mostly, but they kept to themselves and worked in silence.
I've Never Felt So Short
At some point Wayne's stomach decided it was chow time, so we got up and went to the lounge. A large dining room is set up near the media workroom, and there's enough food there for the media and the Spurs personnel - and probably 100 more people. I got some turkey, potato salad and some mildly spicy sauce. Wayne, being the human eating machine that he is, got a little of everything and really pigged out. I wanted to take a photo, but there were lots of people who looked distinctly professional - I was already the odd one out with my jeans and trainers, instead of nice-looking suits and I'm-well-off shoes. Taking a photo at that point would've made me look even more out of place, and it was probably my first encounter with the intangible, elusive yet very real barriers set by the access a media pass grants, something Wayne has had to deal with for a while now. I'll talk about it later in detail.
In any case, I remembered to sneak back in after the game, when the room was empty and the lights were off. A small victory for the slippery Argentine.
Food was consumed, energy levels rose to acceptable levels, and we quickly left and meandered in the general direction of the media workroom. Activity was low, so Wayne asked: "Do you want to go to the court?" I think I only answered with an enthusiastic "Yes", but I think "Hell, yes! I didn't know we could do that! Woo hoo!" was implicit in my excited tone of voice.
Wayne navigated the twisting halls with confidence, and we walked out into the court through the entrance used by the players during the game. It was... great. The wooden floor gave a little beneath my feet, and for a moment I felt a suicidal urge to start running across the court. The big security guy probably wouldn't have liked that, so it's probably good that I was content with looking at Hill and Bonner shoot triples not three meters from me.
Swish. Swish. Swish. Swish. Swish. They were automatic, especially Hill. There were rare misses, but it still impressed me how accurate these athletes are when the pressure is off and they fall into a rhythm. A few days later I would witness the same feat from none other than Bogans, and he's only a mediocre shooter. The talent runs deep in the NBA, my friends, even if we don't notice it sometimes.
Eventually Timmy came out, and started practicing his free throws. Then Bogans, DeJuan, even Manu at some point, and I kept trying to take it all in, seeing everything and nothing at the same time. They run simple drills, repeating the same motions until they got it right. Push off, grab the pass, shoot the midrange jumper. Rinse, repeat. Grab the pass, push, fake, turnaround and small hook. Repeat. Tall interns either put a hand in their faces or passed them the balls, and the assistant coaches sometimes also made the passes. We saw Chip Engelland throw bad passes at some point, to take the shooters out of their rhythm. It was fun, educational, downright odd and unique for a basketball fan of so many years that had only seen the game through a monitor, thousands of kilometers away.
By the time I remembered I actually had a camera, all the players had retreated to the locker room. Only my desire to look like I belonged kept me from punching myself in the face.
Shall Not Suffer Fools
Coach Pop always gives a short conference 45 minutes before the game, so we finally had to leave the court. Wayne had a question ready, and I had a flimsy no-question that was my only hope to avoid getting "Popped", just in case. As we waited, we got to talk to the poor security guard who spends the entire game behind the Spurs bench, looking at the crowd instead of at the game. He's a Spurs fan, too - poor guy. Later on, we would see him running along the main hall, following Roger Mason Jr. as he warmed up. Considering he was half as tall as Roger, I thought that was quite impressive.
We entered a new hall I had never seen before: the color scheme didn't change - white walls, black doors, black floor. There were several framed photos of the players hanging from the walls, and to my delight I also spotted the Spanish and French translations of the Jacob Riis' famous quote. I wanted to take a photo for this post, but I was quickly informed that wasn't allowed. I was about to pout when RC Buford came out of a random door and sent a quick "hello, gentlemen" to the small group of reporters and bloggers that had gathered, passing us quickly and walking like someone who had places to go, people to meet, countries to conquer.
The hall was narrow; McDonald and Monroe talked about having nothing to ask Pop after so many games, standing next to the wall opposite me. I kept close to Wayne, trying to shield myself with his narrow frame, and somehow managing a halfway state between leaning against the wall and standing at attention; a young, lanky guy who writes for Hoopsworld stood to my left, looking almost bored with the entire situation; Buck Harvey came in late and stayed behind, and his smile seemed forced to me. Another door opened, and two people came out. I don't remember their faces - I wasn't paying attention, because I had guessed what was coming next. Gregg "extraneous G" Popovich stepped into the hall, walked up to us, and said a simple hello.
It was everything I had hoped it would be: the silence felt heavy and uncomfortable, and we all looked at each other, trying to guess who would be the first one to crack. Pop just looked at us, impassive, as if he had all the time in the world but was ready to leave at any moment. In what looked to me like a practiced, savvy move, Monroe started the conference with a light-hearted joke about the Hawks' coach shaving his eyebrows and whether Pop was thinking of doing something similar. Popovich didn't really laugh, but the ice was broken.
Slowly, the questions came: one by McDonald, another by the Hoopsworld fellow. Buck Harvey asked Pop about the Amar'e trade, and Pop simply sneered at him. "Where was that? Yahoo? What's Yahoo? Is that like Twitter?" "It's where Johnny Ludden writes." "Johnny wrote that?" "No, Wojnarowski did." "Don't know him. I guess it's that time of the year again." I didn't tape this, so I'm paraphrasing, but that was the gist of the exchange. Classic Popovich, if I may say so, and I enjoyed it immensely. I really love his style.
Wayne did his question, and it got a good answer from Pop, who seemed to appreciate the topic change. Then Wayne stabbed me in the back and mentioned to Pop that I was here from Argentina. "Argentina? We actually have a player from Argentina, did you know?" Big laughs all around, and I even joined them after a second. He asked whether I had a question, and silently cursing Wayne I manned up and asked my question:
"What do you think is the most important thing Manu brings to the team this season?"
"The same he does every season," said Pop, looking right at me and with no trace of laughter in his voice. "Fierce competitiveness. He gives his all to the team."
I thanked him, and the conference was over. I breathed in and looked at the snickering Wayne - I swore to myself he'd pay for that someday. We went back to the media workroom, but didn't stay there long. It was nearly game time (beaches).
A Win At Last
Media types have seats assigned in different zones of the arena. As far as I could figure it out, the regulars get courtside seats near the bench; the important visitors and the people who didn't fit in the courtside seats are put on the second row; the minor players, Wayne and I included, go to the tables set in the landings at floor level, just below the Baseline Bums. We sat down in our places, and I took out my notebook to join the PTR game thread. The Wi Fi signal was strong, but it wasn't working, though, and I hadn't brought the cable necessary to plug in my computer to the AT&T's network. Now that's an old-fashioned fail.
You already know what the Hawks game was like: 48 minutes of good, solid basketball, and the first victory I was able to watch live. I enjoyed it. I have observations about the game, maybe a description of what an NBA game is like for the foreigners like me that have only watched them through the TV, but I'll leave those for another post. After each quarter a Spurs guy came and gave us the stats and play-by-play sheets for the game, and when Tony got hurt we received an official notice of his status midway through the following quarter. We felt important, or at least I did.
No one sat next to us, but there were some TV reporters at the far end of the table, including a pretty woman who seemed completely uninterested in the game going on below. An annoying rule about having a media pass? You're not allowed to cheer with the fans, clap, boo the refs, or generally act like you're anything but an emotionless reporter. I tried to contain myself, and midway through the game Wayne and I had developed an awkward sideways fist bump that seemed adequately subdued. Wayne spent the rest of the time analyzing our defense with a system he ought to explain someday, and I took half-hearted notes for this post. (What, you think I improvise all this crap? ...I mostly do.)
Oh, right, a quick note before I forget. During the halftime show, a team of four guy came out and started performing acrobatic dunks using a trampoline. Where are the Rocket Power Dancers when you need them?
We won, and it was good.
When the game was over we hurried back down, only stopping long enough to say hello to janieannie and wave across the court to bellasa and Queness, who had watched the game together (FSM help us if those two join powers). Our media passes magically opened the wall of security guards keeping people from accessing the players' tunnel like Moses parting the Red Sea. We went straight to the room from which the Spurs' locker room, their Tabernacle, their Sancta Sanctorum, is accessed, and waited for Pop to come out. When he did, the TV reporters held their microphones at a ready position near Pop's mouth, but didn't open theirs to ask one measly question. Instead, Monroe and McDonald braved the waters - the atmosphere was relaxed after the win, so everything went smoothly. Pop left, and we had to wait again until the locker room's door, the last obstacle between us and the players, was opened.
When it did, everyone jumped inside and took positions chaotically around the room. The locker room itself was both interesting and disappointing: interesting, because the players started coming out and talking between them, joking about this and that, just being people instead of distant, untouchable stars; disappointing, because it was small and utilitarian, maybe even spartan in its simplicity. Wayne explained an important bit of etiquette we had to observe: players can't be approached until they acknowledge you with a simple "I'm ready". (And we all know what happens when you bring alfajores into the locker room.) RJ went first: thankfully, he hadn't bared anything while dressing, as the horror stories I had heard proclaimed. He was funny, attentive, and efficient. I didn't pay much attention, though - instead, I focused on the other players talking between them, filtering in and out, thankfully dressing behind well-placed towels. Manu came in, half-dressed, made a joke about the gaggle of reporters closing in on the newly-arrived Tim Duncan like shark-riding raptors (remember his career-high for rebounds that night?), and I couldn't help but wonder what bellasa's reaction would be to that sight.
If RJ was funny, Tim was hilarious. He answered comfortably, with a sense for timing and endless politeness. His best move of the night was when he slowly edged the group sideways until he stood in front of Antonio McDyess' locker, which forced poor Dice to wait patiently until the interview was over to dress. Wayne asked Timmy a daring question, and he got a positive answer. I think he was happy about that, even if he hasn't bothered telling you about it yet.
It was Antonio's time on the spot then, but I had had enough. We stopped by the Media Workroom before leaving - it was a study in silent activity, and the only sound I heard was the soft clicks of the reporters' notebooks as their hands flew over their keyboards. The rest of the night is a fog. I was so tired that I can't believe I managed to stay awake while Wayne drove us to Austin. We stopped at What-a-Burger's (pronounced "WaterBurger" by real Texans) drive-through, which was also a new experience, but that belongs in a new post.
Media Pass Day was over.
Boundaries And Balance (A Quick Note)
During my short stint as a Spurs media someone, I finally gained some insight into the many compromises and responsibilities Wayne has to deal with now that he's entered the murky space between journalism and fan-blogging. There are hidden fences that separate the media's space and the players'/organization's, and there are no guidelines to know exactly where they lie. Can I take a photo? Can I ask a question? Can I quote him? What exactly does "off the record" mean? You're sharing space and time with people who do this for a living, who have headlines and bosses to respond to, and you can step on many toes with a careless move.
It's a learning process I didn't have to go through as the foreigner-who's-doing-this-for-a-week-only, but that Wayne will certainly have to withstand it if he wants to grow and gain more access. I saw some of the possibilities such access will grant for him and for us readers, and I personally think it's worth it. Patience is the key.